Category Archives: Inspiration

How we connect to a story

For a while now I have wondered what it is that makes me like a book or a story. This surfaced again recently while I was reading “The Note” by Zoë Folbigg. The description of the story seemed to be similar to the stories in Jill Mansell books, which I love. The Note has also received critical acclaim. Yet while reading it I couldn’t get into it and I didn’t understand why.

What I was able to distill based on earlier experiences is that I need to be able to identify with the protagonist to feel that I can get into the story. This doesn’t mean that she has to be a 38-year-old white woman who works for an IT company. I have been able to connect with protagonists that were different in many different ways. Even protagonists that weren’t human. But what does allow me to identify with a protagonist? Why do I feel like I’m living the story while reading some books and feel detached from others?

The book that I’m currently reading has helped me resolve this mystery. The book is called “Story Genius” and the author is Lisa Cron. Story Genius is one of many books that claim to explain how you can become a better writer. Its angle is different from most others in its genre though. The book explains the science behind what your brain needs to get pulled into a story.

For us to connect with a protagonist we need to understand what drives this person. We need to understand who the protagonist is before the story starts. Unless the protagonist is a baby and the story starts on the day of her birth, she will have a back story. She will have experienced things that have shaped her believes and her feelings. Understanding these experiences, the things she learned and how she has been hurt and celebrated in the past will help us to see inside our protagonist.

Throughout the story, the protagonist will try to learn something or gain something. The misbeliefs that she picked up throughout her life might get in the way of getting what she wants. By understanding what drives our protagonist from the inside, we can connect to her. We are experiencing the story as if we are part of it. Even if our own lives are very different and if we would take different decisions in similar situations. We all have the same basic needs. We want to be loved, accepted, appreciated, recognized for our efforts and be part of something. If we feel that our basic needs are at risk we experience one of four basic emotions; happiness, sadness, anger or fear. Because the basics are very similar for all of us, it’s easy to understand a protagonist’s reaction when their core beliefs are at stake.

With the help of an MRI scientists have been able to prove that when you read a story that allows you to connect with a protagonist, your brain reacts in the same way it would when you experience the situation yourself. That is why it’s so hard to put a good book down and why you feel sad when you finish it. You become part of the narrative and it feels like everything that is happening to the protagonist is actually happening to you. When the story ends it feels like having to say goodbye to close friends.

I tested the theory against a couple of books that I like and so far it is holding up. As long as I can understand what drives the protagonist and why he or she makes certain choices I can connect to him or her. These books are also the ones that are very hard to put down.
In the books that I can’t quite get into, the backstory of the protagonist is missing, or the decisions that he or she makes do not make sense based on what I know about their past experiences.

If I ever feel brave enough to try my hand at writing fiction I know where to start. I should start by creating the past and the beliefs and misconceptions of my protagonist.
Don’t hold your breath though. It could be a while…

Confirmation bias and the difference between men and women

I just finished reading Inferior by Angela Saini. I started reading it because I thought it would be about whether men are naturally smarter, or better at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) than women. As a woman who studied electrotechnical engineering and who works in STEM, this is a topic that I’m interested in. I believe that at least part of the problem of the underrepresentation of women in STEM has to do with the lack of (visible) role models for girls. Yet I’m also interested in learning if there are biological differences between men and women that might have an impact on the number of women interested in, or naturally good at STEM subjects.

Most of the book is not about whether men are wired in a way that benefits succeeding in these fields though. It talks about men and women’s position in society, both today and throughout history. There is a lot of focus on who brings home most of the food, who is the most aggressive, who takes care of the offspring and about sex drive and promiscuity.

The book isn’t about new research, but it investigates previous research into the positions of men and women in societies. It becomes obvious that it’s not straightforward. The outcome of most research mentioned is at the very least hotly debated and often even controversial.

One of the main challenges is, that when researching the differences between men and women, everybody is biased in one way or another. I find this a scary thought. If we can’t trust scientists to be objective, who can we trust? Can we even trust ourselves? I don’t think we can, we all have the tendency to gather, interpret and remember information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs. This is “confirmation bias”. The effect of confirmation bias is even stronger for emotionally charged topics.

So how should we deal with this? How do we determine what is fact and what is an opinion? When we read a non-fiction book, or an article in a newspaper, or even worse, on the internet, what is fact and what is opinion? When we read about new research and discoveries, how do we know that the scientists involved were objective? We can’t do our own research on every topic that we read about. Most of us already have a busy life…

One thing that helps a lot is if different scientists, in different parts of the world, are able to repeat the same experiments and get the same results. These days scientists repeating experiments to verify the results is getting rare. This is at least partially driven by another hot topic of this moment: the push for scientists to get published as often as possible. Magazines and journals prefer to publish new results from new research, rather than a confirmation or invalidation of previous research results. It’s also easier to get published if your results are statistically significant. An article about an experiment that didn’t deliver the results that you expected or hoped for is highly unlikely to get published. This means that invalidating or disproving previous research results is hard and often not very visible. Scientists are being pushed to delivery drama and quantity, not quality.

In the book, the author makes sure to discuss research results that support and results that oppose the ideas that she is promoting. In most cases, there is just as much evidence confirming a thesis as there is evidence disproving it. A lot of the results seem to be impacted by preexisting biases and opinions. There is a clear difference in the results of research done by men, versus research done by women.

The book doesn’t mention a lot of research on the topic of men or women being smarter or naturally better at STEM subjects. I do of course have a (biased) opinion though and the book did give me a new insight.

I believe that some typical boy or girl interests are innate in most of us. A lot of the love of dolls, barbies and pink in girls is cultural though. Driven by the type of toys that young kids get and by the behaviour that is (in many cases unconsciously) stimulated and rewarded by parents. Personally, I have never been drawn to dolls or pink. I liked LEGO and reading. I’ve always been good at math and I enjoyed it. Part of this is of course that we all enjoy the things that we are good at a bit more than the things we struggle with.

It has been proven in many different cases that if we ourselves or others around us expect us to fail at something, we are a lot more likely to indeed fail. If girls hear from a young age from their parents, family, babysitters and other boys and girls that math and physics are for boys, they are a lot less likely to be successful when trying their hand at math and physics. My parents have always been very supportive, I was very lucky that I was able to easily absorb what I learned in school. I also had the advantage of my mum being a trailblazer, working in IT. Although this was never emphasized, she was a great role model.

The book made me realize that there was maybe also something else that might have had an impact. I was a bit of a loner as a kid. I usually had one or two close friends, but I didn’t belong to any specific group of boys or girls. I was bullied between the ages of approximately 10 and 14.

This means that on one hand, I wasn’t influenced very much by the other girls and what they felt was “normal”. I also wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t fit in if I would choose a lot of STEM subjects in high school, as I didn’t fit in to begin with. Of course, this is a narrative that I’m constructing in hindsight. I now feel that not being popular and not being part of a close group of girls might have made it easier to pursue an education and a career in STEM.

There are still more questions than answers I’m afraid. The difference between men and women will remain the topic of a lot of research and debate. We’ll also continue to look for ways to get more women STEM until there is equal representation.
Be prepared to investigate your own ideas and opinions and keep an open mind to other people’s ideas. If we are open to learning from each other we are most likely to get valuable new insights.

Perseverance paid off – mission accomplished!

About 14 years ago I trained really hard for several months and ran a couple of 10km races. In every race I finished just over 50 minutes, so that became a bit of a thing. The closest I got to that magic mark was 50 minutes and 4 seconds in a race in a tiny little village.

For 14 years I’ve tried on and off to break the 50 minute mark, without really committing to it. This year I decided to give it another go. I’ve really been enjoying running, and the lovely weather made it easier to go out on runs regularly.

I’ve been very close to reaching my goal twice this year. So close in fact that I felt I might have subconsciously sabotaged myself to not reach it.

With this in mind I had planned ahead for this week. I had the week off work, so I had more time to run and rest and I decided early on that this would have to be the week. I ran 14km on Tuesday, which was my longest run in years, mostly to prove to myself that I could do it (I also remembered why I normally stop after 10km, I find running 14km boring!).

Before I went out today, I knew what the goal was. I didn’t tell anyone about it, so I wouldn’t have to explain if this would become another failed attempt. I’ve always been my own worst critic though, so there was still pressure. I was even a bit tense before setting off.

I know that running as relaxed as possible, being in the moment, is the most pleasant way to run, as well as usually the quickest. I couldn’t do it today though. I was uptight and in my head from start to finish, making the challenging goal even harder to reach.

Today’s run wasn’t a pleasant one. Even though I was running below target from start to finish I was close to stopping several times, because I was uncomfortable and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to keep up the pace until the end. I’m very happy that I didn’t quit. I ran 10km in 49 minutes and 23 seconds. Well below my goal.

I didn’t enjoy today’s run, but I am of course happy that I was finally able to beat my self-doubt and the clock. I do still enjoy running. A lot! I’ve also enjoyed most runs leading up to today. So I will now go back to running because I love it. I don’t have to push myself to, or beyond, my own limits every time. I won’t set a new goal anytime soon.

Summer flu and an update on freewriting

I have what is apparently called a “summer flu”. I didn’t know this was a thing, and I would have been happy to live on unaware of its existence but alas, no such luck.

When you have the flu in winter you curl up on the sofa with blankets and tea and books and candles and it’s nice and cozy. Even though you’d rather not be sick, it’s ok to spend a couple of days like that. Now though, even the thought of a blanket makes me break out in sweats. I want to be outside, playing tennis, running, working in the garden, or reading a book in the sun. Feeling hazy and having a headache and a sore throat is very much at odds with the sun and the lovely weather outside. Not much I can do about it though.

To make the most of the situation, I’d like to give you an update on how I’m getting on with freewriting. This is the 21st day of writing. If you would go through the trouble of looking up the date of the first freewriting post, you’ll notice that it was posted more than 21 days ago. I don’t write every day. If I get home late, or if I have to choose between sports and writing, I sometimes skip the writing. Which is fine. My goal wasn’t to write every day. I started this because I was looking for my writing voice, and I hoped that the freewriting would help me find it.

I am enjoying freewriting. It’s a great outlet, and a way to help me order my thoughts. When something is going around in my mind I need to let it out. On some days, what I write turns into a blog post or a concept for one. On other days I’m happy no one will be reading what I scribbled in my notebook. Writing more has increased the number of useful ideas for blog posts that I’ve been able to come up with. Sometimes the idea sits in my notebook for several days, before I pick it up again and rewrite it into a blog post. I still find that a lot of what I write is not suitable for publication. Mainly because I don’t want to publish anything from which it is possible to identify any of my friends, family, colleagues, or my employer. If someday I will pluck up the courage and find the inspiration to write fiction, then some of these ideas can be used as inspiration. Until then it will stay in my notebook.

Freewriting has helped me to find my writing voice. Writing with pen and paper makes it easier to write down what I think. There are no typos and no red wriggly lines show up if I misspelled a word. I just continue to write, knowing that if I ever want to publish it, I’ll have to type it anyway and I can fix any mistakes at that point. It makes writing feel more natural. I’m less subconscious and I’m able to keep my perfectionism at bay.

Writing (and reading) more also means that I get more practice again writing and thinking in English. A couple of years ago I spoke English at home and at work, so most of my thinking was in English as well. That’s not the case anymore, which means that I sometimes get a bit rusty and more predictable in my choice of words.

All in all, the freewriting only has benefits so far. It makes me feel good, it improves my writing, it generates ideas and I’m enjoying it. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be writing some more!

Inspired by Minimalism

I’m not a minimalist by any stretch of the imagination. I’m very tidy, but the storage space in my house is “well-used”. I also recognize that I like the buzz of buying pretty things. It makes me feel good, at least temporarily.

Almost a year ago now, I read a book that had quotes from “The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo in it. Even just reading the quotes inspired me. Especially the concept of only buying and keeping things that you either need or that bring you joy and happiness, stuck with me. It sounds very much like common sense. Yet despite being reasonably smart and sensible, I wasn’t applying this rule in my own life.

I have since tried to live by this guidance and it’s worked out very well. I didn’t even consider that I might save money by applying these simple rules, but I was surprised by the difference that it has made, financially. Instead of buying relatively cheap things, like clothes regularly, I have invested in some more strategic purchases. I was able to buy new dining room chairs and insect screens and sunscreens. Especially the last two have proven to a be a worthwhile investment with the, for Dutch standards, uncharacteristically warm weather of this summer.

Besides buying less, I’ve also thrown out more. Every now and then, when I feel restless, instead of buying things, I will direct my restlessness towards cleaning up a specific part of my home. Things that I don’t need and that I don’t love will go to a charity that can put my abundance of things to good use. Or if it’s too scruffy for that it will end up at the tip.

Slowly I can see more space opening up in cabinets. An unknowing visitor wouldn’t be able to notice the difference, the changes are happening mostly behind closed doors. But it certainly makes me feel good.

I’m assuming that there will be a point where there’s no more unnecessary and unloved stuff to clean out. In the meantime, I will continue to direct my restlessness at combing through cabinets and drawers, getting rid of any excess baggage that I’ve acquired over time. A cheap form of therapy that leaves behind a positive vibe, even after the buzz wears off.

Seeing through time

I just finished reading Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I never read it before and I picked it because several people that I admire talk very highly of both the book and its author. It’s remarkably easy to read.

The most fascinating thing about the book though is the use of time in it. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, travels through time. He has no control over it, he just keeps jumping back and forth. As a reader, you only experience a moment once, but Billy himself can live through the same moment multiple times. He doesn’t change what happens, nor is there the suggestion that he would want to. He simply experiences it.

He meets many colorful characters, of which the Trafalmadorians are the most remarkable ones. They kidnap Billy and explain that they can see six dimensions. This means that they can see all times simultaneously. They see time in the same way that we see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. Past, present and future just “are”. Because of this concept of time, they don’t see death as the end of something. It just means that the person who died will not be around in a particular part of time. But he or she will still around during other times.

Although I can’t see six dimensions, I like the idea of thinking about time like this. Someone might be here today, and they were around in the past. You spent time together. At a certain moment, the person might die. They won’t be around to experience new things together in the future. But the moments that you shared and the time that you spent together will always be there. We might not be able to experience all time simultaneously, but we can go back to those moments in the past and still enjoy them by remembering.

This is not only true for time spent with people who are no longer there, it’s also true for other moments in your life. Some of these moments might be crisp and beautiful, like the view of a mountain lake on a sunny day. Other moments might be more like a dark cave with spiders and bats flying around in them. Going back to those isn’t very appealing. You might as well avoid thinking about them too much, as you can’t change what already happened. It can be very soothing and inspiring to go back to enjoy the happy memories every now and then though. But don’t get stuck. Remember to experience today.

Free writing

I started free writing, using pen and paper. I’ve only done it twice so far, so you can hardly call it a habit, but it does feel good. Until now I’ve always rejected the idea of using pen and paper to write. The lovely weather drew me outside though and a pen and paper are a lot more convenient in the bright sun than a laptop screen is. It was the push that I needed to try it.
I thought I might be put off by my less than perfect handwriting, or by not being able to correct mistakes. It turns out that both don’t bother me at all.

The reason for trying something different is twofold. I’ve not been writing much lately, mostly because of a lack of topics that I feel I have something useful or interesting to say about that isn’t already being said in a better way by someone else.
The other reason is that I’ve been trying to find my “writing voice”. I liked the tone of voice in my last two posts. They were very different from the type of post that I normally write. Both were driven by the emotions that I was feeling while writing them. They were written quickly and posted without many revisions. They sound a lot more like me.

Most of my other posts are about concepts, while the ones that I like are stories. I’m hoping that the free writing will keep away the perfectionist in me and allow me to write some imperfect stories that have heart in them. The free writing makes it easier to be kind to myself while I’m writing. Nothing that I write while doing it needs to be posted. If it sparks an idea that’s great, if it doesn’t I enjoyed the process of writing for the sake of writing.

It’s an experiment and I think the amount of activity and my voice on here will be testament to the result. Or lack thereof of course!